Monday, August 22

Mom - 1926 to 2011

One of the best people I've ever had the privilege of knowing died recently. My mother Carol. I thought I'd share a few photos of this wonderful woman.

Here she is as a one year old. I understand they cut her curls off for the photo.

I love this old sepia toned photo of mom.

A night out in Omaha with some friends.

The girl in the polka dotted dress.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day - June 24,1950.

Their first Chrismas card photo. Really a good looking, happy couple.

And then along came trouble - a baby with a nasty case of colic (me). I'm not sure that mom found parenting me lots of fun. Or any fun. I'm sure my dad got up to take this photo and went back to bed. I'm equally sure that mom acted with grace and love. She always did.

To me, the scariest of our posed family photos. The only fake smile I can remember in a life of smiles. This was a woman who smiled from her heart.

Second place in the scary photo contest.

With Mom at Linda's wedding.

One of my favorite family photos - taken on an Alaskan cruise to celebrate Mom and Dad's 50th anniversary. Straight smiles from the "nuclears" - wackiness from the rest.

A three generation fruit plate.

With Peter at his college graduation.

A laugh with Linda and me.

With her precious double cousins about a year ago.

A little over a month ago. She had lost her desire to eat much, but not her smile. That she never lost.

August 3rd.

The last photo I took of this wonderful woman - on the day she died. It took me a very long time to figure out that on that day her face didn't capture her lovely peace. It was her hands. Here's my attempt at a eulogy for mom - written to be read (haltingly, it turns out) at the service we had to celebrate her life:

Thank you for joining us today to celebrate the life of a wonderful person. She meant the world to me and to every member of our family. It means so much to us that you took the time to join us today. Our family would particularly like to thank the staff here at Edgewater, who we now think of not as the staff but as “our friends here at Edgewater.” Mom was treated, as Lila would say, “like she was the only one here” by the folks at Beacon Springs over the last two years. Their compassion and warmth and flexibility, particularly over the last two months, has been nothing short of amazing. They made it possible for Mom to deal with the physical challenges of the last months of her life with much of the same grace and warmth that she displayed so constantly over her nearly 85 years.

Linda, Bruce and I were raised by two remarkable people.

Our father Dale – or “Big Red” as I call him now. Intelligent. Logical. With the problem solving skills of an engineer. A lover of a good argument. (He would call them “discussions” but I would argue with that characterization.) Honest to the point of sometimes being a bit blunt. With an edgy sense of humor.

And Carol, whose life we are here to celebrate today. Kind. Warm. Happy. Rarely without a genuine twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face. If dad had the problem solving skills of an engineer, mom had the problem solving skills of a great counselor or minister. Friendly. Helpful. Loving.

These two were exceptionally good parents. Very different, but complementary. In my view particularly because of the fact that each of their children knew at the most fundamental level that they were loved, trusted and respected. Succeed or fail, I always knew that mom was there for me. Her love and affection have always been a constant, unquestioned part of my life. For a person like me who was a spectacularly unsuccessful athlete and awkward with girls, this was an enormous comfort. When I failed at something, I never thought it was because I wasn’t a valuable or worthwhile person. My mom’s presence in my life saw to that. Of course, that didn’t mean that dad wouldn’t remind you that your 8th grade football coach liked having you on the team because you were “fun to talk to.” Every month. For the rest of his life.

Mom was much gentler. More supportive. With a great sense of humor, but one that was never cutting or biting. Affectionate. Always there with a smile. And a laugh or a hug. She always knew, seemingly by instinct, what you needed. Even if you were a teenage boy and what you needed was food in large quantities.

There was one notable exception to her helpful, generous nature. That was when she was playing board games and cards. She always played within the rules but she always played to win.

Dad too. Ours was a competitive household when it came to games. No quarter asked for or offered. I don’t think dad would even let a child win at Candyland. If he drew Queen Frostine, to the top of the board he went. Of course he would only play Candyland once – quickly and correctly understanding that the game was determined once the cards were placed in a pile and the rest was just wasting time finding out who won. Mom would have quickly come to the same conclusion, but she played anyway. She might have even cut her grandchildren some slack in Candyland. But not in a game that required even a small modicum of skill. No one “let” anyone else win at games in our family. That is why so often the number of players among the five of us was limited to three. With Linda and Bruce sensibly developing “other interests.” For anyone who has played a game with me in their life, I apologize. But please blame my mom and dad.

Over the last seven years, Mom and I both habitually started our day by completing the four Jumbles in the newspaper. When I was stuck on a Jumble in the morning, it was fun to call mom. She would either have already solved it – in which case she would gently help me discover the answer myself with a clue or two – which hearkened back for me to her homework help in much earlier days. Or we would solve it together. She never called me to ask for help. I don’t know if that was because she never needed help or because she was unwilling to incur the vast cost of a long distance toll call for something so frivolous. Old habits die hard.

As the Alzheimer’s took a greater toll on her game playing skills, she turned more and more to Word Search puzzles. I think it is fair to say that she was a word search savant. In her word search world, you found the next word on the list, and then circled it with an almost military precision. No working ahead searching for subsequent words. In a puzzle with twenty words if I played by her rules – which I tried to do - I’d sometimes find one or two words before she did. And as I’ve already described, I was trying. She wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. And when I did find a word I sometimes wondered if she wasn’t letting up just a bit, like she might have with a grandchild at Candyland. In her honor, we included in your program a quick word search made up of words and phrases that for one reason or another we associate with mom.

Mom was always there to help. To help me. Or Mrs. Vollers, a retired teacher in Newton who needed some help and whose family lived elsewhere. Or Lela Shultz, her wonderful neighbor at Park Center. Or Tonya, the young woman from Belarus who mom and dad met on one of their international trips. Or dozens of other friends for whom she was always there. I always find it appropriate that mom and dad’s international travel was mostly with an organization called Friendship Force. To me, mom was a one woman Friendship Force.

All of us help others. But, at least for me, it’s sometimes out of a sense of duty. Or guilt. Mom truly felt the joy of giving. She was never “counting”, never helping for show or for credit. She loved and lived to be a help. A friend. As her Alzheimer’s advanced and she sometimes became what Kate aptly described as “pleasantly confused” – she still frequently told me slightly improbable stories in our phone calls describing how she had helped someone. In her heart, I’m sure she had.

Since dad died, when I’m trying to figure out why something doesn’t work, or how to solve a problem logically, I often say I’m “Channeling Big Red.” But for most of my life when I determine how to treat people and how to behave in the interactions that make up every day, I always try my best to emulate mom. I often fail. The behavioral standard she set is hard to reach. I suppose now I can call that trying to “Channel Carol”. No one could have a better role model.

From the day I was born until a week ago - every day of my life until now - I was lucky enough to be showered with the love and respect of this wonderful woman. A great mother. A friend. I love you, mom. And I’d like to say publicly from the very bottom of my heart the last words I said to you privately. Thank you.